Walking out of a press screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” in early November, I turned to a fellow critic in the hopes that he might explain a plot point that had been puzzling me for most of the film’s two hours and 40 minutes.
“Did Paul Dano’s character have a twin brother—or was he supposed to be suffering from some kind of split-personality disorder?”
No Country for Old Men
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson
(Miramax; US theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 18 Jan 2008 (General release); 2007)
There Will Be Blood
Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciarán Hinds, Kevin J. O'Connor, Mary Elizabeth Barrett
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 26 Dec 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 15 Feb 2008 (General release); 2007)
He shrugged at me and said, “I didn’t understand that either.”
A few weeks later, watching the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” for the third time, I found myself once again trying to figure out why Javier Bardem’s character, at the very start of the film, has been arrested by the police. Was he pulled over for speeding? Was he discovered near the sight of that drug-deal-gone-bad and taken in by the deputy because he looked suspicious?
I reread the opening pages of the Cormac McCarthy novel upon which the movie is based: No explanation there. I called a friend who used to work for the film’s producer and who had read the Coen brothers’ script. He couldn’t help, either.
“There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men” have a number of things in common. Both are thematically ambitious portraits of America at major turning points in its history. Both are set against stark and unforgiving Western landscapes (California and Texas). Both were partially shot in the tiny West Texas town of Marfa.
And both, of course, are the front-runners at tonight’s Oscars, with eight nominations each. (Look for “No Country” to pick up the lion’s share of prizes, but between Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance and Jack Fisk’s production design, “There Will Be Blood” shouldn’t go home empty-handed.)
But what most links these two films is a kind of self-conscious vagueness—a deliberate refusal on the part of the filmmakers’ to yield to the audience even the most basic information about plot and character. This quality has been amply praised—Google the phrases “There Will Be Blood” and “mysterious,” and you’ll stumble upon a dozen or so gushing reviews of the film.
But it’s this very vagueness that prevents me from fully embracing these works. And judging from the respectable but hardly stellar box-office returns for both, I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way.
All movies—even the most challenging and avant-garde ones, like those by Andy Warhol or Jean-Luc Godard—are supposed to follow the rules of their own internal logic. But “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood” make a fetish of strangeness and elusiveness. Along with a number of other 2007 titles, including the ludicrously overpraised “Zodiac” and the plainly punishing “The Darjeeling Limited,” these movies hint at the emergence of a new style of filmmaking, promulgated by filmmakers who consider themselves too cool for their own audience.
These are films that want to be regarded on a higher artistic plane than mere commercial entertainment—and “art,” apparently, doesn’t need to satisfy us rubes in the audience.
To be fair to “No Country for Old Men,” the Coens were working from McCarthy’s book, and he’s a novelist who has turned vagueness into his own cottage industry. (If anyone can explain the meaning of the sentence, “The snow fell nor did it cease to fall” from his recent novel “The Road,” lunch is on me.) And the great strength of the film version of “No Country for Old Men” is the way it strips McCarthy’s book to its lean and ruthless essentials: a brutal cat-and-mouse chase between a killer (the mesmerizing Bardem), his hapless prey (the should-have-been-nominated Josh Brolin) and the sheriff who’s trying to stop them both (Tommy Lee Jones).
But as the movie carries on, more puzzling plot points crop up. How is it that Bardem’s character just happens to be driving past the motel where Brolin is holed up—with a tracking device that just happens to pick up the signal from the stolen briefcase? Were there really such powerful tracking devices available in 1980, when the film is set? And then there’s the question that’s been asked by just about everyone who sees the movie: How the heck does Bardem finally succeed in killing Brolin—a climactic sequence that infuriatingly takes place off camera?
I’ve heard a million defenses for the director’s storytelling choices: That the filmmakers are deliberately subverting our expectations for a traditional genre thriller; that the film ingeniously dispenses with any and all exposition and throws us right into the middle of the chaos.
That’s all fine and good. But, at last check, no one goes to the movies so they can walk out feeling stymied and frustrated. Perhaps more to the point: As the inexplicable, unanswerable riddles pile up, the movie comes to seem more and more ludicrous—it’s pulp putting on airs.
The sins of Paul Thomas Anderson and “There Will Be Blood” are even greater. Even its most vocal celebrants can’t seem to make sense out of it.
For the record, I’ve been told that Dano’s character, Eli Sunday, does indeed have a twin brother named Paul, a detail confirmed when Eli’s father makes a reference to Paul about halfway through the film. But dare I ask what the heck happened to poor Paul, who—after alerting Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) to presence of oil beneath his family’s land—seems to go the way of Emile Hirsch’s character in “Into the Wild” and disappear from the face of the planet.
Nor do I understand why Anderson refuses to clearly establish the film’s setting (if you miss a brief reference to San Francisco early on, you might easily think the story is taking place in Texas); or why no other relative makes a claim on young H.W. (Dillon Freasier) after his father is killed and Plainview decides to informally “adopt” him (did the mother die in childbirth—and take her parents, her in-laws and all of her siblings along with her?).
Maybe I’m being too literal-minded—after all, aren’t the greatest films supposed to reveal their richest secrets only after multiple viewings? Or maybe I’m just being a lazy moviegoer who doesn’t want to fill in the blanks himself.
But what’s so great about “mysteriousness” if the mystery can’t possibly be solved? This was, in fact, the very point of “Zodiac,” a kind of anti-police-procedural that spent nearly three hours chasing down red herrings and coming to dead ends. It’s a nifty postmodern experiment that also happens to be a crushing bore.
In the case of “There Will Be Blood,” which builds to a wholly cockamamie conclusion featuring Plainview whacking Eli over the head with a bowling pin, one increasingly gets the sense that Anderson himself doesn’t have the answers to his movie’s mysteries—or even have a point to make. Instead, he piles on the obfuscation and embraces strangeness for its own sake.
All of this smacks of the worst sort of cinematic elitism—an elitism that’s only been multiplied by the wall-to-wall rave reviews these movies have earned. Those of us who simply want to understand the story we’re watching are made to feel like idiots—as if we’re simply too dim-witted to appreciate nuance and complexity.
Little wonder there’s such a vast gulf between the movies that win prizes and the one that earn hundreds of millions. Filmmakers and critics can complain all they want that moviegoers don’t want to be challenged and that the lowest common denominator is winning out.
But if our finest directors aren’t willing to meet moviegoers even half way, can you really blame people for heading off in droves to see “Transformers 2” or “Shrek 4”?